Jason Day believes a low-profile grouping helped him charge into contention at the US Masters in a brilliant opening round for the Australians at Augusta, with Brooks Koepka defying a rules probe to be the sole rebel star to fly the flag for LIV Golf.
Former world No.1 Day snuck a clutch last-hole par putt in the side door to post a bogey-free five-under 67, raising hopes he can challenge for a second major in a career-renaissance year.
Not considered among the favourites for the year’s first men’s major, Day and former Masters winner Adam Scott (68) featured near the top of a leaderboard laden with the PGA Tour’s biggest stars as the tournament braces for wild weather.
“I look at that leaderboard, and it’s like all the [big] names are up there, which is fantastic,” Day said. “So I think it’s important – more imperative – to actually get off to a good start here just because of what we’re going to have on the weekend.
“I played with Gordon Sargent and Zach Johnson today, so we were in a group that were kind of flying under the radar, totally. So it wasn’t one of those big marquee groups that we have in the afternoon or early morning. It was nice to be able to have a group that was very relaxed out there.”
Having secured his Masters invite only in recent weeks, as he charged back inside the world’s top 50 from a low of 175, Day put himself just two shots behind tied first-round leaders Koepka, Spain’s Jon Rahm and Norway’s Viktor Hovland (all on 65).
Jason Day hits the tee at the 12th.Credit: AP
Day walked off the 18th green with a spring in his step, while 42-year-old Scott rode an eagle on the par-five 15th to put himself in the frame for a shot at a second Masters title.
“I don’t know for a fact, but it’s probably my best ever opening round,” Scott said. “So I have to be satisfied with that.
“You want to put yourself in the right spot early. Any week you want to get off to a good start.
But we just don’t know what’s going to happen and how the weather might affect the rest of the week. So if you’re hanging around right from the start on a week like this, it’s probably helpful.”
Day said: “He was on the way to the gym [earlier in the week] to go throw the weights around pretty hard, and I was sitting on a golf cart just eating food. So, a little bit different [preparation].
Adam Scott lines up a putt during the opening round.Credit: Getty
“Scotty’s been a good mate of mine, so it’s nice to see him play well. I know that he’s got off to a little bit of a slow start [on tour] this year, but things can change in major championships
“Scotty said his short game is absolutely filthy right now. So that’s a good thing [he had 68].”
Koepka was the shining light of Greg Norman’s 18 LIV stars to tee up at the Masters as golf’s civil war thawed at Augusta National. Norman was not invited to the tournament.
Augusta National’s competition committee questioned Koepka’s caddie and playing partner Gary Woodland’s bagman after the round.
Television cameras capture an exchange in which Koepka’s looper Ricky Elliott appeared to mouth “five” to Woodland’s caddie Brennan Little after Koepka had hit into the par-five 15th, a potential breach of the rules by advising a competitor of what club to use.
The competition committee ruled there was no flouting of the rule.
Koepka shied away from talk about his Saudi-backed move, but was more expansive on a debilitating knee problem which has restricted him in recent years.
“Getting out of bed takes 15 minutes just to even kind of feel right,” Koepka said. “I wouldn’t even say I feel right. Just feeling like you can’t get around for the day isn’t exactly fun.
“It’s probably the closest I can be to Tiger [Woods] without his leg. I’m not saying it’s anywhere near his, but I understand how painful it is and how just mentally gruelling it is.
“I don’t think I’ve rediscovered anything. I just think I’m healthy, so I can move the way I want to.”
Australia’s world No.6 Cameron Smith was the next best of the LIV stars after signing for a steady two-under 70, while world No.48 Min Woo Lee and amateur Harrison Crowe, playing in his first Masters, both posted three-over 75s and face a challenge to make the cut. A similar challenge faces Tiger Woods (74).
Brooks Koepka lines up a putt on the second hole.Credit: AP
Smith made a confidence-boosting birdie on the last as he tries to break through after three top-five finishes in the Masters.
“I love coming back here,” he said. “There’s just something I feel really comfortable with. I haven’t felt good about my game, but the last couple of days it started to feel really nice again.
“I’m always nervous [here], and if you’re not nervous you probably don’t care enough. Judging by my shot, I was very nervous.”
Rahm reeled off seven birdies and an eagle following an opening hole shocker as he chases his first Green Jacket.
“If you’re going to make a double or four-putt or anything, it might as well be the first hole,” he said. “[You’ve got] 71 holes to make it up.”
Rahm won’t look be looking over his shoulder too much, but does Day consider himself a legitimate threat?
“Depends on when [and] how I wake up in the morning,” he said.
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